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People & Ideas: William Lloyd Garrison

William Lloyd Garrison

Source: Library of Congress

In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison published the inaugural issue of his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, writing: "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. ... I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."

During his lifetime, Garrison was heard on a variety of issues, becoming a prominent and radical activist not only for abolition, but also for women's suffrage, temperance and pacifism. While his radicalism attracted some, Garrison's positions frightened many of the more moderate voices for social reform in the 19th century. On July 4, 1844, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution. When the American Colonization Society failed to push for an immediate end to slavery, he broke with the organization. He co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and supported the admittance of women like Lucretia Mott to the organization. Most male members protested, and the organization fractured. He quarreled publicly and broke with his former ally Frederick Douglass.

John Brown's failed raid at Harper's Ferry pushed Garrison’s radicalism even further. In 1859, Garrison eulogized Brown's execution with a call for Northern secession from the Union: "By the dissolution of the Union we shall give the finishing blow to the slave system; and then God will make it possible for us to form a true, vital, enduring, all-embracing Union from the Atlantic to the Pacific -- one God to be worshiped, one Savior to be revered, one policy to be carried out -- freedom everywhere to all the people without regard to complexion or race -- and the blessing of God resting upon us all!" An avowed Unitarian, Garrison believed slavery to be in direct moral conflict with Scripture; America could only be pure if it was finally cleansed of slavery.

Yet Garrison supported Abraham Lincoln's election and welcomed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery forever in the United States. With emancipation achieved, Garrison published the final issue of The Liberator in 1865. Until his death in 1879, he remained a vocal advocate for social reform.

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Published October 11, 2010

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